Feb 19: Undocumented immigrant takes refuge in church, Congressional hearing on religious liberty

Executive Branch

Jeanette Vizguerra, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, took refuge in a Colorado church after her request for a stay of deportation was denied. More than 800 US houses of worship are part of the “sanctuary movement.” Although not protected by law, cultural norms and past directives from ICE have prevented government agents from arresting people inside of religious buildings.

Legislative Branch

The House Subcommitttee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, of the Committee on the Judiciary, held a hearing on the state of religious liberty in America. The witnesses included representatives from the Christian-affiliated Christian Legal Center and the Alliance Defending Freedom, as well as from Becket and former US Ambassador Rabbi David Saperstein. Full texts are available here, and video is available here.

Saperstein, the only non-Christian witness, notably stated that he believed the draft executive order on religious freedom to be unconstitutional.

The House voted to overturn an Obama-era regulation that took effect last month preventing states from denying funds to Planned Parenthood. Speaker Ryan said the religious freedom of taxpayers was one reason for the action.

Judicial Branch

Another federal court has issued a preliminary injunction against President Trump’s immigration executive order. This injunction is based on the evidence presented to the court from statements by Trump and his advisors that the ban is intended specifically to target Muslims, which would be religious discrimination.

The 6th Circuit has ruled against Jackson County, Michigan for its practice of saying prayers at public meetings. The main issue was that the prayers were only offered by county commissioners and always by Christians.

A Social Security Administration judge in Texas filed suit against the SSA for being officially reprimanded over his refusal to watch an LGBT sensitivity training video, which he said would violate his religious beliefs.

50 States

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled unanimously against Barronelle Stutzman, a florist who denied service to a gay couple for their wedding on the basis that it would violate her religious beliefs.

A Virginia bill to prevent the withholding of government funds to religious organizations that decline to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies passed the state house and senate. The bill is likely to be vetoed by the current governor.

Community

An unprecedented rash of bomb threats have been called in at more than 45 Jewish organizations in the past several months. Ongoing investigations have so far been unsuccessful.

Other reads

Why immigration rules that involve decisions about religion quickly get messy, with the government having to weigh in on doctrine and theology to decide who counts as Christian, Muslim, etc.

A discussion of what makes certain places sacred in Native American religions, and the relationship to the Dakota Access Pipeline and other contested spaces.

Feb 12: Trump’s religious freedom appointees, Sioux to use religious freedom in pipeline dispute

Executive Branch

Pam Pryor, who was responsible for the Trump campaign’s outreach to evangelical Christians, is leading the Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department. She is vetting people to be ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and a front runner appears to be Ken Starr. Recently resigned as president of Baylor University amid a football sexual assault scandal, Starr is most well-known for his role as special counsel investigating President Clinton for the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals.

Judicial Branch

Part of the 9th Circuit’s temporary restraining order on Trump’s immigration executive order prevents the government from “proceeding with any action that prioritized the refugee claims of certain religious minorities.” It restated the religious freedom arguments against the order and said those claims are serious and present significant constitutional questions, particularly given President Trump’s past statements about a “Muslim ban.”

The Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s “Hail Mary” effort to block the Dakota Access pipeline is based on religious freedom grounds.

The 5th Circuit is hearing a case about a North Texas school board’s practice of opening meetings with prayers by students.

The 4th Circuit rejected the appeal of an Orthodox Jewish woman who was penalized by the DC airports authority for taking off work for Passover, taking the rare step of issuing an “unpublished opinion.”

50 States

Many pieces of legislation are being introduced in state legislatures that are related to religious freedom; Religious Freedom Review typically covers these bills once they have passed both chambers. The Washington Post, however, has a good summary of the various issues under debate across the country.

Georgia settled for $225,000 with Eric Walsh, a pastor claiming he was fired from the Department of Public Health for his religious beliefs. The state maintains he was let go for not disclosing his second income, but Dr. Walsh and his lawyers argue that it was religious discrimination and that the state requested he hand over his sermons, notes and other pastoral documentation.

A group of California parents filed suit the state over the portrayal of Hinduism in the social science curriculum.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his wife are set to host a “Christian cruise” in Alaska.

Other reads

An explanation of the two major religious freedom precedents that are germane in the 9th Circuit case over the immigration ban.’

A historical survey of American distrust of and discrimination against atheists.

A strong opinion piece arguing that Trump’s executive order would let fewer Christian refugees into the US, and that giving them preference would only exacerbate religious tension in conflict zones.

Jan 15: ACA won’t accommodate religious orgs, Catholic hospital denies transgender operation

Executive Branch

Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions addressed questions about religious freedom and immigration screening of Muslims, saying he was opposed to a religious registry but that religious beliefs could be a factor in determining entry to the US. Full NPR coverage here (see section #4 for religious issues); C-SPAN clips related to religion compiled here.

Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson also faced questions about President-elect Trump’s proposals about Muslims. He said that he opposed a wholesale ban on Muslim immigration, and he would need “a lot more information” to take a position on a database registering Muslims. C-SPAN clips here.

Judicial Branch

After hearing Zubik v. Burwell in July, the Supreme Court requested that executive agencies review the contraceptive insurance requirements of the Affordable Care Act and determine whether and how to accommodate religious organizations. Departments of Labor, Treasury and Health and Human Services announced last week that they are making no accommodation.

Transgender New Jersey man sued a Catholic hospital for denying a hysterectomy to treat gender dysphoria.

Legislative Branch

Congressman Mark Walker (R-NC) joins Senator James Lankford (R-OK) as co-chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus.

50 States

A series of “anti-Sharia law” or “anti-foreign law” bills are being introduced and passed in state legislatures across the country.

Michigan Department of Corrections settled a suit brought by Muslim inmates who were not provided Halal food or mealtimes to provide enough calories during Ramadan.

Missouri State University settled with a student who was expelled from their counseling Master’s program for saying he would not counsel gay couples due to his Christian beliefs. The American Counseling Association’s code of ethics forbids any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Counseling, psychology and social work are an oft-overlooked source of friction between principles of non-discrimination and freedom of conscience.

Local

A series of three cases across Virginia where land-use requirements are being used to block mosque construction.

New Jersey Superior Court ruled that Morris County’s Historic Preservation Trust Fund recipients can include churches, finding that it doesn’t violate the separation of church and state.

Gay substitute teacher sues Catholic high school for termination after a Facebook post about his wedding.

An atheist prisoner in Pennsylvania’s only option for early release is to participate in a religious “Therapeutic Community program.”

Other reads

A thoughtful (if one-sided) piece in the LDS-affiliated Deseret News about the conflict between LGBTQ rights and religious freedom, and approaches to compromise.

Jan 10: Confirmation hearings, the Army accommodates religious dress

Executive Branch

Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing for Attorney General is ongoing, with some questions about religion. Sessions stated that protecting religious freedom will be a “very high priority,” but agreed that the AG is required to follow and enforce court decisions such as Roe v. Wade and Oberfell v. Hodges. He also said that Muslims as a religious group should not be denied admission to the US.

Betsy DeVos’ (NYT profile here) confirmation hearing has been delayed until next week. As a prominent school voucher activist, questions have been raised about the use of government funds for religious schools.

The US Army has issued a new regulation allowing US military personnel to wear beards, turbans and hijabs as required by their religious beliefs.

The Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, David Saperstein, will leave his post after the Inauguration. There is concern that his replacement will not be appointed for a year or more, as happened with both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Judicial Branch

A federal judge has issued a temporary injunction on an executive extension of the Affordable Care Act that defines sex bias to include discrimination based on abortions and gender identification. Proponents of the ruling argue it is protecting doctors’ rights to refuse to perform medical procedures like abortions if they are morally opposed. Opponents fear it will allow discrimination of healthcare provision to those who have had abortions or identify as transgender.

A Marine who was court-martialed for several counts of disobeying a lawful order, including a refusal to remove provocative Bible verses from her desk, has petitioned to be heard by the Supreme Court after losing her appeal at the US Court of Appeals for Armed Forces.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case about an exemption for religious organizations from minimum funding and other requirements in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Most affected organizations are hospitals.

Legislative Branch

The International Religious Freedom Act has been amended to include the right to not practice a religion and to protect nontheistic beliefs.

One of the first bills of the 115th Congress is HR 172 to repeal the Johnson Amendment, the law preventing tax-exempt religious organizations from endorsing political candidates or participating in campaigns. President-elect Trump promised multiple times in his campaign to repeal the amendment.

50 States (and the District)

Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) plans to invoke congressional authority to block Washington, DC’s new physician-assisted suicide law.

“Bathroom bills” about transgender use of gender- or sex-designated bathrooms are being introduced in states across the country.

Local

A federal court ruled that Bernards Township in New Jersey (NYT profile of case here) discriminated in its application of city parking ordinances to a mosque. The legal dispute has been running for 5 years.

What we’re monitoring

The Atlantic has an excellent piece identifying what we can expect in 2017 under the Trump administration, particularly with a Supreme Court vacancy and over 100 other federal judicial appointees to come. National trends to watch are government-Muslim relations and questions of religious exemptions around medical treatment and procedures.